Summertime Fun at Writers' Camp

by Dean Schneider and Robin Smith

Elementary school

Each year, our school’s reading and writing program continues into summertime, with two one-week Young Writers’ Camps, open to rising third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders. They are not remedial or skills-based programs, just comfortable places for kids who like to write and make books. We emphasize poetry and bookmaking, and we teach the course in the same spirit as our classes during the school year: we read good books and let the readings suggest the writings. We select books—mostly picture books for this age group—that suggest writing ideas we want to try in a given week. For example, if we plan to do acrostic poems, we read aloud Steven Schnur’s Summer (see below), among others. If we do concrete poems, Joan Bransfield Graham’s
Flicker Flash (Houghton, 1999) is always on tap. Douglas Florian’s
Summersaults (Greenwillow, 2002) is a natural for poems about summer, especially list poems on “What I Like about Summer” and “What I Hate about Summer.”

On the first day of writers’ camp, we have students set up a folder that becomes the repository for all of their writings during the week—poems, the rough draft for a big project, and free writing, a choice each morning. Free writing might be additional poems of a type we taught, an ongoing short story, or even a comic book. The three-hour session each morning is a mix of reading aloud, poetry writing, bookmaking, and sharing.

List Poems and Place Poems

We are always on the lookout for poetry that can inspire children’s poems. The
Teachers and Writers Guide to Walt Whitman (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1991), created by 15 poets to teach Whitman’s work to K–12 students, inspired us to read a portion of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and discuss the various things the narrator hears. Then we go on a quiet walk around the school, listening for all kinds of sounds. Afterward, the young writers return to the classroom and write their own “I Hear” list poems, each line describing a sound. Here’s an example of one such poem:

I hear Mr. Picklesimer making a table

I hear Ms. Smith using a ball winder, it is very squeaky

I hear squeaks when girls jump off swings

I hear people talking on phones in the office

I hear Ms. Smith cutting paper

I hear kids playing basketball

I hear music by Bach

I hear people saying “Ooohhhh” because a dead cockroach is lying on the floor

I hear kids doing science

I hear the air conditioner

I hear the sound of lights

—Adelaide, a third-grader

Similarly, Nikki Giovanni’s picture book
Knoxville, Tennessee (Scholastic, 1994), with illustrations by Larry Johnson, always leads to excellent list poems about places, such as the following:

I always like summer best

You can . . .

Eat fresh strawberries, fresh blueberries, and fresh watermelon

You can go to your farm and pick flowers

You can go outside and ride bikes and scooters and sometimes even rollerblade

You can go fishing and water skiing and swim in the lake

You can catch fireflies and eat outside

On a hot day, you can have water gun fights with your brother

—Lili, a third-grader

Portraits of People or Places

During writers’ camp we do at least one big project that takes all week to accomplish, something that requires planning and substantial effort and balances “one-shot” poetry ideas. Often these are a portrait of a place or person, and we begin by teaching students how to write a more developed description and support it with good examples and details about things done in that place or with that person.

For writings about a place, Alice McLerran’s
Roxaboxen (see below) is a treasure. It’s a perfect model of writing about a place with loving detail, and Barbara Cooney’s illustrations are simply gorgeous. For writing portraits of people, Tomie dePaola’s
Tom (see below) is a humorous and fond remembrance. With older students, this activity can be an introduction to memoir writing, and the models could come from novels or nonfiction; with our summer students, they are picture books in the making.

After they have written rough drafts and proofread them, we help students divide up their writing into chunks of text, pushing for approximately 12 pages. Using blank books from the Bare Books Company for the finished product (see
“Bookmaking Resources” for more information), we have students rewrite their stories in a picture-book format, planning where illustrations will go and allowing space for a title page and dedication page. When the writing has been transcribed into a blank book, they illustrate the interior and create a cover. If there is time, they include an “About the Author” page on the inside back cover. With careful preparation and development, these can become collectors’ items or nice gifts.

Making Books from Scratch

Besides using blank books, it’s always fun to teach children to make their own books from scratch, starting just with cut paper ready for folding. The books can later be used to hold poems or stories. They can be made from very simple material: unglued multicolored square paper from an office supply store (the kind people use for memo pads), with scraps of wrapping paper for covers. We provide glue sticks and scissors and hole punchers, along with yarn needles and yarn for sewing when necessary.

The easiest 8-page books magically pop out of any sheet of paper, from the tiniest memo sheet to posterboard-sized construction paper. We love this form because the book can easily be unfolded and photocopied. Children also learn to make origami star books, origami accordion books, rubber band books, and Japanese bound books. (See
“Bookmaking Resources” for more information.)

We are big believers in fun gimmicks when it comes to working with young children, especially in the summer. We spend time at craft stores finding ribbon for binding and interesting paper and alphabet stickers from the scrapbook sections. Neon rubber bands are more fun than plain old beige. Gel pens and gel markers, forbidden fruit during the school year, help add excitement to the more relaxed summer days. Helium balloons are the perfect place to write short poems such as lunes and haikus, and the children have even covered the school sidewalks and parking lots with monster poems!

Books to Teach Poetic Forms

Below are a few favorite picture books that inspire the kinds of writing we do in our summer writers’ camps. They are old standards in our writing programs.

Janeczko, Paul B.
Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices. Illus. by Melissa Sweet. 2001. 40p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (9780688162511). Paperback available March 2007.

Gr. 3–6. Playful watercolors add to the fun in this book that teaches an important skill: creating voices for different points of view. A crayon, a kite, a vacuum cleaner, the wind—each tells its story here in poetic fashion.

Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko. Illus. by Chris Raschka. 2005. 64p. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763606626).

Gr. 4–6. The best single guide to a variety of poetic forms, this ­follow-up to the successful
A Poke in the I, below, covers haiku, limericks, couplets, odes, ballads, and many others. Raschka’s torn-paper-and-paint collages are a beautiful complement to the poems.

A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko. Illus. by Chris Raschka. 2001. 48p. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763606619); paper, $7.99 (9780763623760).

Gr. 3–8. This beautiful work makes a fine one-two punch with A Kick in the Head, above, its companion volume. Children enjoy the illustrations, and the poems are effective models for students’ experiments with poetry.

Schnur, Steven.
Winter: An Alphabet Acrostic. Illus. by Leslie Evans. 2002. 32p. Clarion, $15 (9780618023745).

K–Gr. 2. Following
Autumn (Clarion, 1997),
Spring (Clarion, 1999), and
Summer (Clarion, 2001), Schnur and Evans have created another fine seasonal collection that is excellent for teaching acrostic poems.

Smith, Charles R., Jr.
Diamond Life: Baseball Sights, Sounds, and Swings. 2004. 32p. Orchard, $15.95 (9780439431804).

Gr. 1–4. Along with Smith’s basketball tribute,
Rimshots (Dutton, 1999), this photo-essay includes “I Remember” poems, haiku, and concrete poems. The visual appeal makes these hits with children.

Books about Special Places and People

Chall, Marsha Wilson.
Up North at the Cabin. Illus. by Steve Johnson. 1992. 32p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (9780688097325).

Preschool–Gr. 3. Based on Chall’s childhood vacations in Minnesota, this tribute to a special place is a superb model for writing about a cherished spot and the things done there.

Collier, Bryan.
Uptown. 2000. 32p. Holt, $17.95 (9780805057218); paper, $6.95 (9780805073997).

K–Gr. 3. This beautiful portrait of Harlem features Collier’s striking watercolor and collage illustrations. The pattern of the text, “Uptown is . . . ,” can be a model for students’ own “My neighborhood is . . .” poems.

dePaola, Tomie.
Tom. 1993. 32p. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399224171); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (9780698114487).

K–Gr. 4. This funny read-aloud can inspire writing about various people, including beloved family members. dePaola’s series of chapter books, starting with
26 Fairmount Avenue (Putnam, 1999), are also superb for reading aloud and inspiring writings about personal experiences.

McFarlane, Sheryl.
Jessie’s Island. Illus. by Sheena Lott. 1992. 32p. Orca, paper, $8.95 (9780920501764).

Gr. 1–4. Written in the form of a letter to a friend, this is a beautiful pairing of prose and art that describes the pleasures of Jessie’s island.

McLerran, Alice.
Roxaboxen. Illus. by Barbara Cooney. 1991. 32p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (9780688075927); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (9780060526337).

K–Gr. 3. Based on the author’s own memories, this is the story of how children create a magical imaginary town in the desert and make up elaborate games to play there.

Rylant, Cynthia.
When I Was Young in the Mountains. Illus. by Diane Goode. 1983. 32p. Dutton, $16.99 (9780525425250); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (9780140548754).

Gr. 1–4. Rylant eloquently describes her childhood memories of simple pleasures. Marked by Goode’s softly colored illustrations, this book is a perfect evocation of a special place.

Bookmaking Resources

Bare Books are hardcover 28-page blank books and can be purchased from Treetop Publishing. Call (800) 255-9228 or visit for more information.

Making Books That Fly, Fold, Wrap, Hide, Pop Up, Twist, and Turn: Books for Kids to Make by Gwen Diehn (Lark, 1998) is a child-friendly title that explains a variety of interesting book forms. We like the explanation of star books, which are three-dimensional five-page books. Glued one way, as described, they make dandy ornamental books. Another neat book is the accordion book. Glued with the pages alternating between folded edges and open -edges, it can be any length. Once a writers’ camp participant made an accordion book that hung from one side of her bedroom to the other!

Dean Schneider and
Robin Smith are a ­husband-wife team at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. Dean teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English. Robin teaches second grade.